Image from the National Museum of the U.S. Navy via Flickr
Last month, the White House held a nontraditional off-camera gaggle featuring Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The event quickly engendered controversy after Spicer invited select media outlets, simultaneously blocking several prominent ones such as CNN and The New York Times from attending. Of the media welcomed into the room, including Fox News and Breitbart, many tend to lean to the right in reporting, raising public concern for the White House’s disregard for freedom of press.
Less than two hours before the gaggle, President Trump spoke out at the Conservative Political Action Conference, reiterating his sentiment that “fake media” is the “enemy of the people.” He both refuted the media’s accuracy in reporting and accused them of fabricating sources. Trump (ironically) did so in the name of free speech. You bet “nobody loves the first amendment better than [Trump]!”
Refusing to be complacent in the face of attacks, the public has been active in exercising their right to free speech as well. Many took to social media to express complaints, while media outlet representatives from both of those which were blocked and invited to the gaggle have voiced their disapproval of the obstruction of bipartisan reporting.
Each of these acts are proving to be powerful forms of resistance against the administration’s increasing number of attempts to subdue free speech. In the face of the crusade to delegitimize the media, it is essential that people continue to voice their opinions. This is crucial regardless of whether or not one chooses to defend the media. Of most importance right now is that people assert their voices to disrupt the looming hegemony of the Trump agenda. The inherently exclusionary and dominant voice imposed by Trump is what prompted actor and comedian, Aasif Mandvi, to warn the U.S. populace of the new administration’s manifestation of the “first signs of fascism”.
Mandvi is not the only who has dropped the F-word to describe Trump. As early as May 2016, Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and opinion writer for the Washington Post, wrote an article titled “This is how fascism comes to America” pointing to both Trump’s “egomaniac” behavior and lack of any coherent ideology as telltale signs of fascism.
Without a doubt, Trump has been indefinite about many of his political leanings (he once took 5 different stances on abortion in 3 days, and during his White House bid, he took 141 stances on 23 major issues) supporting Kagan’s claim that Trump’s candidacy has been more of a “phenomena” than a policy or ideology. However, despite the valid historical comparison Kagan makes between past fascist leaders and Trump, not all have been as resolute as him to confirm that Trump is a fascist leader.
John McNeill, a history professor at Georgetown University, published an article to the Washington Post this past October in which he rated Trump as a fascist leader using a scale consisting of 11 prominent attributes of fascism. For each attribute, Trump had the opportunity to earn up to 4 benitos. A score of 4 out of 4 benitos indicated that Trump demonstrates the respective attribute resolutely.
Although there are similarities between his presidency and the regimes of fascist dictators, warranting more comparisons to fascist leadership than any other U.S. president, McNeill, and other experts, steer away from branding Trump with that label. In the conclusion of his analysis, McNeill awarded Trump only 26 out of 44 benitos, concluding that Trump is not a fascist leader. Of the 11 attributes McNeill used in his formula, however, there were 3 in which Trump scored a full 4 for 4 benitos: fetishism of masculinity, lost-golden-age syndrome and leadership cult.
McNeill pointed to Trump’s disrespect for his campaign opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the election as exemplary of his fetishism of masculinity and emphasized his obvious demonstration of the “lost golden-age” through his “Make America Great Again” Slogan. Principally, the most dangerous trait of fascism which Trump has adapted is his leader cult.
McNeill claims that Trump “fully embraces the cult of a leader” evident in his hyper-mentality that he is a leader of unmatched potential: decisive, bold and the best fit for the country. Ultimately Trump craves a following which is rooted in idolizing him. The charismatic rule demonstrated by Trump is the force which essentially fulfills this complex.
Renowned sociologist Max Weber coins three types of legitimate rule which validate political leaders. These are legal authority, charismatic authority and traditional authority. Weber’s insight on charismatic authority is particularly useful in understanding how Trump garners and sustains his support. Weber asserts that the charismatic ruler attains legitimacy based off their followers’ beliefs that their leader possess certain distinguishing characteristics and inborn leadership abilities, rather than based on any tradition or policy. Similar to Weber’s model of a charismatic ruler, Trump lacks political experience or a significant background in policy, yet the people who endorse him appear to disregard this, attributing their support to his personal qualities.
Trump’s leadership as a charismatic ruler highlights an important overlap between Kagan’s writing and McNeill’s analysis. McNeill awards Trump 4 benitos under the “leader cult” attribute due to his heavy advertising of his business experience as evidence for his resolute leadership during his campaign. For Trump to establish his leadership, it is more important for him to emphasize his “decisive leadership” qualities than political policies. His leadership is more based on his ego and “has nothing to do with the Republican Party,” a point underlined by Kagan.
Furthermore, Trump sells himself as a one-of-a-kind ideal leader for this nation by circulating his “nobody does better than me” rhetoric. As a leader, Trump is largely glorified as one supreme being, thus inciting an utter lack of concern to uphold him to any standard of scrutiny. This is dangerous because it obscures the ends to which Trump’s supporters will follow him. Many of Trump supporters root their devotion in the likeability of his character, not a specific political platform, hence Trump does not risk undermining his own legitimacy as long as he remains his charismatic self. Thus exemplifies the dangerous freedom Trump possess, unbound to any formal political commitment. His attacks on the media illustrate just one incidence of his taking full advantage of this freedom, an attempt to villainize the voices of others in order to affirm his own.
Clearly, the discourse on what to label Trump is contested. In brief, rather than join in a name game of is-or-is-not fascist, stay focused on what is at stake regardless: democracy. Start conversations, confide in social media, be loud. What is most important right now is that we remain committed to asserting our own voices, impeding the domain of this legitimacy-thirsty regime which is only working harder to prevent us from being heard.